A Review of The Four Horsemen and a Retrospective on the ‘New Atheist’ Movement.
Between 2004 and 2007 several books were published which had an enormous impact on public debate. These were The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason (2004) and Letter to a Christian Nation: A Challenge to the Faith of America(2006) by the neuroscientist and philosopher Sam Harris, Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon (2006) by the philosopher Daniel Dennett, The God Delusion (2006) by the evolutionary theorist Richard Dawkins, and God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything (2007) by the journalist Christopher Hitchens. Together these books burst onto the scene and inspired a great deal of debate (and often furore) due to their unflinching look at religion, its causes, its effects, and its truth claims. These works spawned a veritable deluge of debate between atheists and theists and even led to the coining of the word ‘Hitchslap’ in honour of Hitchens’s trenchant putdowns, immortalised on YouTube.
These works and numerous others by the likes of Victor Stenger, Jerry Coyne, and Ayaan Hirsi Ali have been classed under the title of New Atheism, though this is a title many such people in that camp deny (full disclosure: I consider myself a part of said camp)- what, after all, is all that ‘new’ about stringent criticism of religion? The publicity and debate, as well as the sheer public cheek of their criticism, may account for why this loose movement of various intellectuals earned that title.
Another phrase birthed from these books was the ‘Four Horsemen’ label used to describe the bestselling group of authors. Again, this has been taken too literally by some. It was intended as a joke more than anything else. Indeed, in his afterword to the 2016 edition of The God Delusion Dennett jokes that there are now so many books critical of religion that the authors should probably call themselves the ‘Dozen Demons of Doubt’, and Stephen Fry has referred to the group as the ‘Four Musketeers of the Mind’.
Fry uses this phrase in his foreword to the recently published The Four Horsemen: The Discussion that Sparked an Atheist Revolution, a transcript of the famous 2007 roundtable discussion between Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, and Hitchens in the latter’s apartment which birthed the ‘Four Horsemen’ label. The book also contains brief prefaces by the three still-living Horsemen (Hitchens died in 2011, and the book is dedicated to him).
The story behind this discussion is given by Dawkins in his preface. He recounts that before Hitchens’s book was published he, Dennett, and Harris were dubbed ‘the Three Musketeers’. After the publication of God Is Not Great the new label became popular. Dawkins makes it clear that this near-simultaneous assault on religion was not pre-planned or organized. In his own remarks Harris points out that the 2007 discussion was the only time all four men conversed together.
In 2007, Dawkins tells us, the Atheist Alliance International conference was held in Washington DC, where Hitchens lived. Robin Elisabeth Cornwell of the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science got the four together in Hitchens’s apartment for a filmed conversation. Ayaan Hirsi Ali was also supposed to be present but was called away urgently (though in 2012 in Melbourne she, Dawkins, Dennett, and Harris reprised the ‘Four Horsemen’ theme in a live on-stage discussion). So, for two hours these four men discussed their experiences in criticising religion and it has now been immortalised in print with the publication of this book, which means this review of it is as good a time as any to look back on the New Atheist moment of the early 21st century.
As an admirer of these men and their work I take great joy in owning a physical transcript of their words. Somehow it makes this discussion seem more permanent than when it just existed as a YouTube video. Nonetheless I am sympathetic to Jerry Coyne’s point that a transcript is a tad superfluous given that the video is freely available online. Still, the written transcript is nicely presented, tidies up some of the more obscure parts of the audio, corrects some points, adds a few explanatory footnotes, and, most importantly, comes with an elegantly simple and appealing cover (judging books by covers is not entirely wrong in my opinion).
The new foreword by Stephen Fry and the prefaces also make for good reading. Fry even takes the joke so far as to introduce the four participants by naming them after the famous musketeer literary characters. Dawkins takes the opportunity to present a long essay on the arrogance of theology and the relative humility of science and atheism. Dennett argues for the continuing visibility of atheists in public and political discourse whilst noting rightly that the transcript shows that there were certain disagreements between the four men and that there was no overarching political programme or agenda overseen by them. Harris, meanwhile, emphasises the continuing relevance of such conversations and outlines the similarities between the Horsemen- broadly their rejection of religious doctrine, dogmatism, divisiveness, and authoritarianism.
Reading the conversation in written form is a very different experience than watching it. For one, it gives the reader more time to appreciate the subtleties and depths of the discussion. It also allows one to engage more with the material. Nonetheless, written transcripts, however well-produced, are rarely good substitutes for the real thing so I would recommend watching the video as well as reading this book. Watching the video also means one gets to keep track of time by observing the points where Hitchens lights up a new cigarette and furtively smokes it off to the side (it was his apartment after all).
Anyway, the actual content of the discussion makes for fascinating and relevant reading. Fry notes in his introduction that this civilised exchange of freethought and open inquiry represents a benchmark which we, in 2019, should heed, given that we are currently in a swirling vortex of unreason and incoherent shouting from all sides of every debate. Fry also takes the time to swiftly put down some of the arguments against the four that have been hurled against them over the years, from the accusation that they are cold and rude to the criticisms of their being fundamentalist and uneducated about religious doctrine and theology. This conversation- and the actual content of their books- proves that all these points are self-evidently absurd.
On the criticism that the Horsemen are terribly ignorant of theological matters I shall add an interesting anecdote. I was having a drink in a bar with a minister lately, who has written books and taught courses on the subject of atheism at the University of Edinburgh, including specifically a course on the New Atheists, and his view is that the Horsemen are actually engaging in theology, echoing arguments down the ages about the interpretation of holy texts and suchlike. While I disagree that this is necessarily a theological practice I think it demonstrates that the New Atheists have some grasp of the matters at hand.
My interlocutor the minister also believes that the New Atheists belong to the Protestant fundamentalist tradition. I do not think they are fundamentalist in any sense (and if the foursome focus on religious fundamentalists it is because the fanatics are all too loud and influential, not because the New Atheists are erecting any strawmen) because they engage with most of the notable theological and philosophical propositions concerning religion and address the problems of ‘moderate’ religion. As for Protestantism, well, Hitchens and Dawkins at least demonstrate a fondness for the liturgy of the Church of England and the religious literature produced over the course of that defanged institution’s long history (Hitchens even called himself a ‘Protestant atheist’ in his book so there is clearly something in this view).
This latter point also does away with the criticism that the New Atheists are cold, joyless, and arid. Their books are in fact immensely readable- hence why they sold so well- and often quite funny, especially in the cases of Dawkins and Hitchens. A love of life, literature, philosophy, debate, science, humanism, art, and history shine through their works in varying measures. Harris is well-known for his secular view of spirituality and much of The End of Faith is taken up extolling the virtues of certain Eastern strands of thinking on consciousness and meditation. So the accusation that the Horsemen merely tore down without building up is also off the mark- though they are rightly known for their highly critical views towards religion they clearly make an effort to outline the superior joys of the secular humanist life. Hitchens took this matter even more seriously in the introduction to his 2007 anthology of sceptical writings down the ages, The Portable Atheist.
Some have argued more lately that New Atheism was a passing fad and that it is dead now (for a selection of these arguments, and wonderful putdowns to them, consult Jerry Coyne’s wide-ranging website which refutes such op-eds as they pop up- which is oddly quite often given their opinions that the Horsemen are supposed to be irrelevant these days). While the Horsemen books were of their time in the sense that they were birthed from early 21st-century anxiety about the growth of American Christian and Islamic fundamentalism, with 9/11 acting as a catalyst to the books’ publications (see Michael Cohen’s excellent article in a recent issue of Skeptic magazine for a fascinating overview of the New Atheist moment), they remain eminently readable and relevant today- not least because American Christian and Islamic fundamentalism are still terrifyingly powerful forces. The surviving authors, as Coyne has said, sell out wherever they speak. The videos of their debates with theists are immensely popular on YouTube, too.
I shall cheerfully add that the (bestselling at the time) books still sell well: God Is Not Great is, somewhat confusingly, the number one bestseller as of 26/03/2019 in Amazon UK’s ‘Religious History of Hinduism’ section (it was number one in ‘Sikhism’ yesterday- make of that what you will) and the ‘Bible Commentaries’ section, Dennett’s book is number 14 in ‘Philosophy of Theology’, Harris’s The End of Faith is 24 in ‘Religious Philosophy (Books)’, and The God Delusion is number 3 in the same category as Harris’s, number 7 in ‘Agnosticism and Atheism’, and number 10 in ‘Scientific History & Philosophy References’. Harris’s Letter is doing a little less well at 150 in ‘Science and Religion’.
As it happens the transcript of the Four Horsemen conversation is itself number 3 in ‘Agnosticism and Atheism’ and ‘Science & Religion’. And here is a bonus: Hitchens’s The Portable Atheist stands at 61 in ‘Agnosticism and Atheism’ (and is also categorised under ‘Fiction Anthologies (Books)’- why does Amazon seem slightly fuzzy on what Hitchens was about?) How irrelevant the New Atheists are these days! New Atheism is dead, long live New Atheism it seems- the Horsemen are clearly still riding hard and their ideas have diffused throughout the broad arena of public debate in the past decade or so. In addition, Dawkins’s introduction to the 10th anniversary edition of The God Delusion gives a detailed account of the (continuing) work done by his foundation over the years. Other loosely (for this is a very loose movement) New Atheist figures such as A.C. Grayling, Jerry Coyne, and Stephen Fry (winner of the Richard Dawkins Award in 2018) remain popular too.
Back to the Four Horsemen discussion. Some of the most interesting points in the conversation are the disagreements between the participants, most notably with Hitchens’s avowal that he would not wish to see religion gone- that given the choice he would always like someone from the opposing team to argue with. This drew particular ire from Dawkins, whose zeal for conversion has always been more evident. Nonetheless they all agree that accusations against them of stridency and suchlike cannot be supported if one actually listens to them or reads their books. Such reactions, they note, come from the odd protection religious sensibility had- and still has, I would say- in our society. Because religions have made it seem an awful thing to criticise them, even the mildest critics are seen as unbearably arrogant and rude.
Most eyebrow-raising is the moment near the conversation’s end where Hitchens announces he is extremely pessimistic about his cause. His pro-War on Terror stance (also startlingly evident throughout, as when he avers his desire for jihadists to be ‘extirpated’) and concern with Islamists led him to believe that one way or another the fanatics will one day manage to destroy civilisation, however many books are published by people like him in the meantime. Perhaps this is a touch too much- the increasing and continuing influence of secularism and atheism in public life is still evident, and much of the western world now rejects religion altogether. Nonetheless, it only takes one fundamentalist with a nuclear bomb to cause utter havoc, and there are many fundamentalists who would dearly love to get their hands on such a weapon, so let us not be too complacent even if we reject Hitchens’s extreme pessimism in this case.
The Horsemen, or whatever you wish to call them (I shall coin a new name: the Quadrangle of Questioners…yes, this game is, I see, subject to the law of diminishing returns) discuss a wide variety of subjects in this all too brief conversation. Their breadth of knowledge of science, history, philosophy, theology, and much else is on display, giving lie once more to the critics who accuse them of being unsophisticated in their view of religion. They engage with each other’s arguments and with the arguments of their opponents (who, as it happens, also count some less critical atheists among their number- ‘faitheists’ as Jerry Coyne calls them). Above all the relevance of this conversation lies in its clearness, openness, honesty, and willingness to challenge the orthodox without fear. In short, whatever one’s views of the Horsemen’s opinions, this book makes for an intriguing read and displays the values of tolerance, civility, and free inquiry-and reaffirms the importance of the continuing New Atheist moment- which we so need to resurrect in a world wracked by the incoherent and the idiotic.
Freelance writer. President of the University of Edinburgh Atheist, Humanist, and Secularist Society.